The South Mills River in western North Carolina harbors wild rainbow and brown trout and provides one of the best backcounty fishing experiences in the region.
Are you new to fly fishing? Maybe you’re just looking for a new way to enjoy your old hobby. Either way, planning a DIY fly fishing excursion can be the perfect solution. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert-- that’s why we’re here.
Keep reading to learn all about how to plan the perfect DIY fly fishing trip to western North Carolina, which is home to some of the best trout streams in the country. Forget the expense and hassle of hiring a guide or paying someone else. We’ll cover where to go, when you should plan a trip, and how to guarantee the best chances of success.
A glimpse of the South Mills River in North Carolina
The South Mills River is located in Pisagh National Forest and has a reputation for wild rainbows and browns that are larger than many nearby streams. It’s located outside of Asheville near the Blue Ridge Parkway and it offers about 12 miles of stream access for trout fishing.
This stream is located in an area that is popular for horseback riding, mountain biking, hunting and camping, and more. The fish here are a bit shy due to the crystal clear water and tend to require a little more trickery to coax out from their hiding spots.
The South Mills River is a medium-sized freestone stream with good access that does require hiking. The hiking is relatively easy though along the South Mills River Trail that provides access. You’ll find several different access points and year-round fishing is available, although summer doesn’t usually yield much in the way of results.
This stream consists of a series of deep pools and short plunges, with a moderate decline and wide berth in some areas. It flows through mountains and evergreen trees, with several cascades and waterfalls. The rainbows will be hiding in the fast runs and plunges, while the browns will be hiding in the quiet, deep pools and near boulders. This river stays cool in almost all areas, so you’ll probably find trout all up and down its length if you look.
South Mills River Map and Fishing Access Sites
Best Places to Fish the South Mills River
The South Mills River flows through the Pisgah National Forest and offers several different access points. The majority of the stream requires hiking to get to the best remote waters, but the terrain isn’t very difficult. The upper end is located near the Forestry Discovery Center, where you’ll find plenty of access points.
You will also be able to access the lower end of the stream (on public lands) from Forest Service Road 297, which will take you to the Turkey Pen Gap Trailhead. This is located off of Highway 280. Access is also available from Forest Service Road 476 that takes you into the Pink Beds area.
This is a winding stream that requires fording (or crossing bridges) throughout its entire length. You will find other means of access, but they are very long hikes and you might not get far during high-water conditions.
Avoid the areas where the trail is used for horseback riding-- the terrain will be rougher and the fish will be less prevalent because of the frequent traffic.
Best Time to Fish the South Mills River
You will always find the best fishing in North Carolina, and in most eastern trout streams, during the spring months. The hatches are varied, and while there is nothing in large quantities, it’s a variety that gets the fish out and active. This wild stream runs on year-round wild trout regulations, so you can really come at any time.
Of course, summer is going to be too warm for much good fishing and especially when you’re dealing with a population that’s already tricky to catch in the first place. For optimal conditions, stick to the spring, fall, or even the warmer winter days. Fall is the ideal time to catch the larger browns in the lower part of the South Mills River.
Another consideration as to timing with these wild trout is the time of day. While the rainbows will hide in the fast waters at just about all times, the browns will spend their days hiding and only come out to feed when the light is low. Therefore, you might have better results at dawn or dusk with these tricky catches.
Plan your trip early or late in the day so that you can try a little of everything, including some low-light angling to catch those browns. Or, spend a whole day on the water if you want. There’s certainly enough area to cover to enjoy hours of fly fishing here.
Stream Flow and Current Conditions
Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the South Mills River. The USGS stream gauge near Mills River, NC provide a good indication of current conditions.
The graph below shows the stream flow (discharge) for the past 7-days. If flows are considerably above or below historical norms (yellow triangles on the chart) then fishing conditions maybe not be ideal.
MILLS RIVER NEAR MILLS RIVER, NC
- Temperature: 53.24 ° F
- Streamflow: 137 ft³/s
- Gage height: 2.09 ft
Best Flies for South Mills River
The fish in this stream aren’t easily fooled. They’re wild, after all, and they’re part of one of the most popular wild trout streams in the area. You’ll want to stick with a diverse range of local insects (midges, mayflies, caddisflies, etc.), and maybe toss in some Olives and Drakes, as well, to keep them guessing and see what takes.
Simple attractor dry flies will usually be your best bet, but the casting is often more important than what you throw. These fish prefer to feed during low light and won’t bite if they see you, so stay low and work on that sideways cast if you want the best results.
Note: This river is single-hook/artificial lures only fishing.
Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the South Mills River:
- Yellow Sally (#12 - 16)
- Yellow Humpy (#10 - 18)
- Parachute Sulphur (#14 - 18)
- Parachute Adams (#12 - 22)
- Light Cahill (#10 - 18)
- Elk Hair Caddis (#8 - 16)
- Yellows Stimulator (#8 - 14)
- Chernobyl Ant (#8 - 12)
- Griffith's Gnat (#16 - 24)
- Pheasant Tail (#12 - 20)
- BH Hare's Ear (#12 - 20)
- Rainbow Warrior (#14 - 22)
- Pat's Rubber Legs (#4 - 12)
- Golden Stonefly (#6 - 10)
- Tellico Nymph (#12 - 18)
- Zebra Midge (#16 - 22)
- WD40 (#16-20)
- Y2K Egg (#12 - 16)
- BH Wooly Bugger (#2 - 6)
- Sculpzilla (#4)
Ventures Fly Co. offers a great selection of dry flies, nymphs and streamers that will catch fish just about anywhere. Set includes 40 high quality, hand-tied flies (see list below) and waterproof fly box.
- Adams Dry Fly
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Blue Wing Olive
- Royal Wulff
- Griffith's Gnat White
- Stimulator, Organge
- Chernobyl Ant
- Rubber Leg Nymph, Brown
- BH Pheasant Tail Nymph
- BH Prince Nymph
- BH Hare's Ear Nymph
- Barr's Emerger Nymph
- Zebra Midge Nymph, Black
- Wooly Bugger, Black (Size #8x2)
- Wooly Bugger, Olive (Size #8x2)
A 9-foot 4-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the South Mills River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.
South Mills River Fishing Report
Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a South Mills River fly fishing report and update on current conditions are listed below:
The state of North Carolina requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available.
You can purchase a North Carolina state fishing license and learn about the most current regulations through the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
Trip Planning Tips
The South Mills River is located outside of Asheville, North Carolina, offering convenient access for those who wish to check it out. However, it is in a remote setting, so if you are flying into Asheville, you’ll need to rent a car to get to the river. You’ll find plenty of lodging and dining in the city and along the route, too.
Weather doesn’t generally affect travel to the area. I-64 also connects most of the area to other major freeways, so keep this on your radar if you are looking for accommodations and places to eat along the way. Camping in this rural setting is plentiful, as well.
Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in North Carolina
Feature image by Brenda Wiley